StoryCorps
5:47 am
Sat September 14, 2013

Hotline Responders Answer Veterans' Desperate Calls

Originally published on Sat September 14, 2013 11:43 am

Responders at the Veterans Crisis Line work to help veterans through their darkest hours. The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the hotline, the only national line dedicated to helping veterans in crisis.

A report in February was the most comprehensive to date from the VA on veterans and suicide. As of that publication, the Crisis Line had made approximately 26,000 rescues of actively suicidal veterans.

Four hotline employees share their experiences with StoryCorps for its Military Voices Initiative.

Elizabeth Olson, 65, responder and mother of two career service members

"Sometimes it's really hard for me to talk to the 19- and 20-year-olds, because, when my kids started, that's how old they were. And when you have a 19- or 20-year-old who wants to die, that is totally heartbreaking.

"One young man, Christopher, I'll never forget him. He had come out of the Middle East — he'd been in full combat — and he had come home to his apartment, and found his girlfriend with another man there. She cleaned his bank account out and he had no place to go.

"I had to talk him off a bridge not once, but twice. You could hear the traffic on the bridge, the water underneath. The police came. They agreed to keep him overnight and take him to the V.A. the next morning.

"He called about a week later and thanked us. He realized that he was young and he could start over, which was what I was trying to get through to him during the whole call."

Karin Porch, 55, responder

"I have had the calls: 'I've got a gun to my head. You've got 30 seconds, why shouldn't I pull the trigger?'

"I remember a veteran who had called 12 times. I said, 'What are we not doing for you? I really want to help.' And, as we're talking, he goes, 'Do you believe in anything?' And I said, 'Well, you mean like God, and afterlife, and all of that?' And he says 'Yeah.'

"And we got down to, 'I killed people in Vietnam, and I'm scared. Am I going to go to hell?' And we talked about that. He was very calm at the end, and he said, 'Just pray for me once in a while.' "

Rich Barham, 57, assistant program manager

"I have post-traumatic stress disorder from my years of deployment in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. And when I came to the hotline, when a vet said they were having a flashback, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

"I remember a young gentleman, he was in the middle of a flashback, and had boarded himself inside his living room. He had three young children — they were sleeping upstairs. I had heard in the background that something had clicked, and I asked him if he had a weapon. He said he did. He was really anxious and incoherent, but, you know, after a little bit of finagling around, he did agree to attend treatment.

"I remember, after that phone call, being a little jerky and nervous — going outside, smoking a couple of cigarettes. And then just coming back in and doing my job again."

Nelson Peck, 66, trainer and administrative support

"The hotline by far is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. I was a combat veteran with the United States Marines in Vietnam. I had PTSD as well, and what I started to realize was my PTSD was triggered by survivor guilt. I never understood why I survived. And being with the hotline has really given me the answer. I was meant to survive to do this, so other veterans could survive."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's time to check in with StoryCorps and its Military Voices Initiative, which honors service members who served in the post-9/11 conflicts and their families too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This year, more service members took their own life than were killed in combat. The Veterans Administration now estimates that there are 22 military suicides each day. We're going to hear from several people who work every day to help veterans through their darkest hours. They work at the Veterans Crisis Line, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is the only national hotline dedicated to helping veterans in crisis. First, Elizabeth Olson. She's a responder there, and the mother of two career service members.

ELIZABETH OLSON: Sometimes it's really hard for me to talk to the 19- and 20-year-olds because when my kids started that's how old they were. And when you have a 19- or 20-year-old who wants to die, that is totally heartbreaking. One young man, Christopher; I'll never forget him. He had come out of the Middle East. He had been in full combat. And he had come home to his apartment and found his girlfriend with another man there. She cleaned his bank account out and he had no place to go. I had to talk him off a bridge not once but twice. You could hear the traffic on the bridge, the water underneath. The police came. They agreed to keep him overnight and take him to the VA the next morning. He had called about a week later and thanked us. He realized that he was young and he could start over, which was what I was trying to get through to him during the whole call.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KARIN PORCH: My name is Karin Porch. I have had the calls: I got a gun to my head. You got 30 seconds. Why shouldn't I pull the trigger? I remember a veteran who had called 12 times. I said what are we not doing for you? I really want to help. And as we're talking, he goes: Do you believe in anything? I said, well, you know, you mean like God and afterlife and all of that? And he says, yeah. And we got down to I killed people and I'm scared. Am I going to go to hell? And we talked about that. He was very calm at the end and he said just pray for me every once in a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RICH BARHAM: My name is Rich Barham.

NELSON PECK: My name is Nelson Peck. Rich, tell me why you decided to come to the suicide hotline.

BARHAM: I have post-traumatic stress disorder from my years of deployment in Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq. And when I came to the hotline, when a vet was saying they were having a flashback, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I remember a young gentleman. He was in the middle of a flashback and he had boarded himself inside of his living room. He had three young children. They were sleeping upstairs. I had heard in the background something that clicked and I asked him if he had a weapon. He said he did. He was really anxious and incoherent. But, you know, after a little bit of finagling around, he did agree to attend treatment. I remember after that phone call being a little jerky and nervous going outside, smoking a couple of cigarettes and then just going back in and doing my job again. How has your life changed since you started working at the hotline?

PECK: The hotline, by far, is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. I was a combat veteran with the United States Marines in Vietnam. I had PTSD as well. And what I started to realize was my PTSD was triggered by survivor guilt. I never understood why I survived, and being with the hotline has really given me the answer. I was meant to survive, to do this so other veterans could survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Nelson Peck talking to his friend and colleague Rich Barham. Before that, you heard Elizabeth Olson and Karin Porch. All four of them work at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for Veterans and Active-Duty Military.

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SIMON: These conversations were recording in Canandaigua, New York as part of the Military Voices Initiative. And like all StoryCorps recordings, they are archived at the Library of Congress. You can get the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.